Avon Old Farms Inn
cuisine: Contemporary American
entrées: $12 – $26
address: 1 Nod Road, Avon
phone: (860) 677-2818
credit cards: All major
4 Stars… Special
Something New Is Afoot At Avon Old Farms Inn
There has been a tendency in some of Connecticut’s most storied inns to serve less than spectacular food. A couple of these, in towns like Wilton and Wallingford, have recently closed, one a presumed casualty of a constricting economy or a failure to maintain its connection with the dining public, the other due to a fire. Others, like the Spinning Wheel Inn in Redding Ridge, have been retooling, making an effort to elevate their game. I visited Avon Old Farms Inn, without doubt one of Connecticut’s most appealing dining venues, to determine in which category this old warhorse fell. The result was mostly a very pleasant surprise.
I had high hopes for our visit for a couple of reasons. First, Avon Old Farms Inn had challenged RestaurantsCT.com to review them, which is a sign of some confidence that’s usually (but not always) warranted. And restaurants that do solicit a review from us will find us tough but fair. They will receive a detailed, constructive evaluation by Messieurs Innes, Montblanc or myself—a blueprint for improvement. Second, I had heard that the ownership, previously preoccupied with its banquet operations, had placed greater emphasis on the restaurant operation over the past year. Third, I knew from perusing the restaurant’s website that executive chef and partner Nick Muce had served the previous eight years as the executive chef of well-regarded Water’s Edge Resort & Spa in Westbrook.
An end of summer chill in the air, my dining companions and I mounted the steps to the inn, proceeded down a corridor lined with refined antiques, passed a private dining room, and found ourselves in a reception area. A staff member offered to seat us in the 1757 Tavern. I hadn’t set foot in the Avon Old Farms Inn before, but as attractive as its tavern seemed, I sensed there must be an exceptional dining space elsewhere and inquired what other seating might be available. After sending someone ahead of us to turn on lights, a staff member led our group down a long, wood-and-glass-paneled corridor and into an extremely handsome room called The Forge. I was glad I had made the inquiry.
I wasn’t the only inquisitive individual, however. Within moments of our arrival, a staff member had asked us:
How are you today? Fine, I said.
What brings you here? Hunger, I answered, which should have terminated the questioning.
Are you from this town? No, south of here, I evaded.
Shortly after we were seated, another dining party was led into The Forge, and I overheard one of them saying, “Yes, this is better.”
And looking around, The Forge was not only “better” than the 1757 Tavern but better than just about any historic dining room in which I had ever been seated. It was simply gorgeous. Dominating the room was a massive fireplace that we were told was the oldest in continuous use in the United States. Stone walls and floors, hand-hewn beams with saddles slung over them, impressive antiques, old bicycles and farm implements are not exactly rarities in our neck of the New England woods, but where some venerable establishments seem cold, dank and haphazardly furnished, there was a care and cleanness to our surroundings that I felt is rarely matched.
The four of us occupied a spacious booth. There was no need to suck in one’s stomach. One wasn’t forced to rub shoulders with one of one’s companions. The table was covered with a white linen tablecloth and fine silverware, dishware and stemware. When we ordered an inexpensive bottle of wine, no one brought us “the cheap goblets,” as so many restaurants will. Big-bowled goblets made a lovely chiming sound as we clanged them together in a toast.
The list of wines by the bottle ($24-$73) wasn’t especially extensive, but it included some smart choices. Twenty-two of the bottles offered were also available by the glass ($6.50-$11). The wine we selected was a 2008 Mont Pellier Pinot Noir, Napa, California ($6.50/$24). Because the Pinot was also available by the glass, we were able to request a taste and make sure we would be content with it.
In the interest of thoroughness, we ordered four appetizers, four salads, four entrées and four desserts. While we awaited our appetizers, we nibbled squares of focaccia that we dipped in good olive oil mined with roasted garlic cloves. A minor cavil: the tap water served had a slight undertaste.
The first appetizer we tried was a cup of lobster bisque ($7/$10). The soup was delightful and couldn’t have been further removed from the lobster bisques of yore—it wasn’t heavy, floury or creamy. The broth was flavored with a dry sherry and was chockfull of Maine lobster pieces.
Lump crab and Boursin cheese fritters ($12) were like Mother Teresa—not much to look at but full of goodness. Resting on a bed of greens and drizzled with a little chipotle mayonnaise, five big balls that might have occasioned a jest or two sported beautifully light tempura exteriors and moist, crabby interiors. Despite their formidable appearance, we made short work of them. Note that while some appetizers are suitable for solo consumption, the fritters are probably better for sharing.
Fried calamari ($9) is another appetizer best shared. Small, tender calamari rings, lightly breaded and fried, were tossed with yellow-green banana peppers and accompanied by both garlic aïoli and marinara sauce. I like the recent trend of providing twin sauces, allowing one to go back and forth between a dip that further enriches the breaded calamari and a dip that cuts the overall richness with its acidity.
Completing our predilection for seafood appetizers was a bountiful crab cake appetizer ($10) that double-stacked two big crabby disks atop a vegetable slaw. A Dijon aïoli radiated from the body of the dish like the five legs of a starfish. The piquant Asian-esque slaw appeared to have both rice vinegar and sesame oil flavoring it.
All four appetizers had been successful. I put the salads to the same stringent test. Three of the four were offered as either side salads or full-sized salads, flexibility we appreciated. The Caesar salad ($4/$8) was the simplest, but its greens were good and crisp, its croutons crunchy and fresh, its dressing sharpened with a pungent anchovy bite.
The chopped salad ($5/$10) was also a hit with our group. Torn strips of green and red lettuce plus diced bacon, tomato, cucumber, red onion, red bell pepper and Cheddar were tossed in a Dijon vinaigrette. The combination showed perfect balance, the essence of a chopped salad.
A green apple salad ($4/$8) was an even bigger hit, with mixed baby greens, Gorgonzola, candied pecan, sliced Granny Smith apple and dried cranberries in an apple dressing. This was another well-balanced salad, except perhaps for an excess of dried cranberries, some of which we left on the plate.
The final salad we tried was a nice Mozzarella and tomato salad ($10). At summer’s end, it didn’t contain the red and yellow pear tomatoes advertised, a fact which probably should have been communicated to diners. However, this combination of sliced tomato, creamy Mozzarella, chopped red pepper, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar was still a delight. A sensible concession to the changing season, it has since been replaced by a salad of sliced beet, goat cheese, baby spinach, red onion and rosemary croutons in a truffle vinaigrette ($10).
Like the appetizers, all four salads had pleased us. It was time to turn to the entrées. Here, we encountered both excellence and a couple of hiccups. Two dishes needed fine-tuning. From the light fare menu, grilled salmon ($20) came in a ginger butter sauce with roasted red potatoes and the same Asian slaw that accompanied the crab cakes. The problem with the dish was that the salmon utterly lacked flavor—I couldn’t have identified the type of fish in a blind taste test if my life depended on it.
The other dish that needed some adjustment was the fettuccine alla bolognese. A big bowl of fettuccine noodles was tossed with a pork and beef ragù with Marsala sauce. I can’t state definitively whether or not Marsala wine belongs in a ragù bolognese (and I did find a couple of recipes that included the fortified wine when I tried to Google the question), but it didn’t really matter because, as so often happens when Marsala is advertised, there wasn’t enough so any of us could taste it. The bigger problem, though, was that the ragù was overcooked, the meat tough and scorched tasting.
However, our high spirits were restored as we tried the scallops and the steak. Pan-roasted scallops ($20) in a red pepper coulis were perfectly seared, the meat naturally sweet and beautifully underdone. The scallops were matched with a couscous risotto, a tomato-avocado salsa and long stalks of asparagus.
Although the scallops were terrific, the entrée that we liked best of all was the grilled twelve-ounce sirloin ($25), a lovely cut marbled with delicious fat, its richness countered by a nice shallot demi-glace. Creamy potatoes au gratin and a vegetable mélange rounded out a very satisfying offering.
The staff presented us with a single dessert menu, which we managed to share. Desserts were priced at $6, which these days is pretty reasonable. But considering the menu made reference to a pastry chef, we were a little surprised that there were only four selections.
Every selection was good, however. The first we tried was a rich slice of cheesecake garnished with fresh strawberry, none of that canned goo. I’m not sure if the second technically qualified as a trifle, but we greatly enjoyed the layering of banana pastry cream, blueberries, sliced strawberry, chocolate sauce and whipped cream in a martini glass. The third, scoops of raspberry sorbet, was simple but delicious. But the fourth dessert proved to be our favorite, even though I normally avoid chocolate brownie sundaes. The fudgy brownie anchoring this dessert was phenomenal, simply the best any of us had ever tasted, bar none. Not that I could eat an entire one without dialing AAA for assistance.
Overall, I was very impressed with the Avon Old Farms Inn. The menu is intriguing and well-executed, with just a little fine-tuning needed. The staff is personable and solicitous. And as long as one insists on being seated in The Forge, the setting is simply unbeatable.
It’s worth taking the time to wander around the inn and absorb every thoughtful detail. Even the modern banquet facilities are quite impressive. Said to be one of the twenty oldest restaurants in the country, the new Avon Old Farms Inn appears to have significantly elevated its game.